How far can LeBron James push the boundaries of the NBA scoring record?

LeBron James celebrates after becoming the top scorer in the NBA on February 7, 2023 in Los Angeles, surpassing Kareem Abdul-Jabbar with 38,388 points.

LeBron James celebrates after becoming the top scorer in the NBA on February 7, 2023 in Los Angeles, surpassing Kareem Abdul-Jabbar with 38,388 points.
Picture: Getty Images

On Tuesday night, LeBron James became the NBA’s Vitruvian shooter, the divine manifestation of an athlete and bucket generator. The constant advancement of statistical landmarks makes them even more difficult for the next generation to reach. The higher the records climb, the harder gravity is to reach. Impressively, James, the star of the Los Angeles Lakers, broke Kareem Abdul-Jabbar’s scoring streak with 4,000 fewer minutes and 150 fewer games.

Despite entering the NBA as a teenager, his growing pains were mild. As a crotchety old man from the NBA, the millions LeBron has invested in preserving his body are finally paying off at the level of his investment portfolio. After the loss to Los Angeles, James sounded like Tom Brady talking about how well his body is still responding to the grueling 82-game NBA schedule.

There are two ways of looking at the way James passed Kareem Abdul-Jabbar as the scoring king. On the one hand, he had the advantage of turning pro right after high school and technological advancements. Wilt Chamberlain averaged 30 ppg over his 14 years rising career in hightop Chuck Taylors, but previously spent three years in Kansas and another barnstorming with the Harlem Globetrotters.

On February 16, 1972, 36-year-old Wilt the Stilt became the first NBA player to eclipse 30,000 points. That number seems unusual 51 years later. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar took the scoring record to new heights in 20 seasons before retiring two months after his 42nd birthday. But he also spent four years at UCLA before the NBA.

On the other hand, James started his career in the Offensive Dead Ball period and will probably end it in the Roaring Offensive Twenties. After James’ scoring began to decline during his age-35 season in which he led the league in assists, the assumption was that he would begin to transition into a facilitator phase. However, since then, James has averaged 30 points per game in back-to-back seasons. Theoretically, LeBron is in position to catapult the NBA scoring record from the hallowed stratosphere into the same deep space as John Stockton’s assist record.

Among active players, 34-year-old Kevin Durant’s 26,684 points puts him at 12,000 points, behind LeBron. On the 20,000-point scale, Durant kept up with James’ pace. Technically, he was the second-youngest player to reach 20,000 because he only spent one year at Texas, but he needed an additional 11 games to reach the milestone. However, since 2019, Durant has lost invaluable time dealing with lower-body injuries. The closest player to LeBron is Giannis Antetokounmpo, who will exceed 16,000 points this season. However, Antetokounmpo’s slow start to his career will hinder his pursuit.

The modern offensive engine with the best chance to hunt for 40,000 points is either Luka Dončić or a precocious phenomenon who has not yet touched the league. Maybe he won’t even be born. But for the purposes of this thought experiment, let’s use Doncic as our vessel since he’s the youngest player in the top five (barely) to have a higher career scoring average than James. Here are two scenarios for Dončić’s career assuming his health.

Can Luka Dončić be the next top scorer?

Scenario one: In the last decade, crimes have increased exponentially. This season, NBA players are on pace to break the record for most 40-point games. If Doncic continued to generate buckets at his recent 30-point-per-night pace, he would pass the 30,000-point mark in approximately 950 games.

However, if his trajectory declines due to age, his metabolism slows, his usage rate drops, or the league institutes rules to stop rampaging offenses, he would still hit 30,000 in just under 1,100 games. He could still be in his 32 or 33 season. For perspective, only Chamberlain and Jordan reached 30,000 in less than 1,000 games, but Chamberlain declined rapidly in his mid-30s. In addition, 30,000 was only Wilt’s second most important five-figure number. Jordan’s multiple early retirements ended his pursuit. LeBron scored 30,000 in 1,107 games.

I even broke down the progression of the record along with Luke and the script featuring Cam Thomas continues to simulate a fully actualized Pete Maravich for the foreseeable future.

Players will now be chasing LeBron, not Kareem

This is where the level of difficulty increases for Dončić or anyone who will cross the rubicon of 30,000 points. Staying that way after a stellar athletic career is where most players stumble. Whoever is chasing a new record isn’t chasing Kareem. For a few more seasons, they are chasing a record that James could increase by 7,000 points in the next three or four seasons. Dončić would need another 400 games — actually five or six seasons just to break 40,000. This does not include major injuries. Note that we only go by games played, not seasons. LeBron, for example, has seen his games diminish over time.

The cracks are small, but he has preserved himself by reducing his exhausting work. In 2018, his final season as a Cavalier, he led the NBA in minutes per contest and still appeared in all 82 games. Having played more than 3,000 minutes in a season that year for the eighth time, James has fallen short of a total of 3,000 regular season minutes every season since. Even during a COVID-shortened regular season, James was only willing to play 2,600 minutes if the Lakers played a full 82 games. If James played until he was 41 like Jabbar did, that record might be unattainable.

As load management becomes the norm and playing 82 games becomes an unrealistic standard, the scoring record can become a constellation visible from the Hubble Space Telescope for even the most gifted shooters. Stockton’s 15,806 basketball nine seconds are 40. He led the league in assists nine years in a row, played until he was 40 and did not miss a game in 16 of his 19 tours in the NBA sun.

Catching LeBron isn’t impossible, but it would take away Stockton’s volume, LeBron’s willingness out of the gate, his volume, and Jordan’s prolific shooting rate. If you drafted the perfect player and gave him 20+ healthy seasons and the scoring ability mentioned above, 50,000 points is the absolute limit. LeBron is projected to finish his career within 5,000 points of that NBA heaven. The margins of error are getting smaller. But until that Vitruvian Scorer shows up, LeBron is the new ghost for future neophytes to chase, and by the looks of it, he’s not done yet.

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